October 31, 2014

Decisions, Decisions: Michigan’s Expanding Public School Choices

Researchers estimate the average adult makes about 35,000 decisions a day. If that’s true, I’d guess that parenting decisions add a couple thousand a day extra to the mix.

Perhaps no parenting decision is more important than choosing the right schools. Today’s parents can enroll their children in one of Michigan’s 550 public school districts. They can also choose from among about 1,000 private and parochial schools that operate here.

Beyond these traditional choices, however, families now have the option to attend a free public school in the next town, the next county, or even via cyberspace. Public Schools of Choice

Sections 105 and 105c of Public Act 300 of 1996 permit school districts to enroll students who live in neighboring districts without needing permission from their home district. There are some limits, however. The chosen district must participate in schools of choice, and must have openings in the grades your children will attend. Districts are required to notify the public about their schools of choice status no later than mid-August. Most, however, make that announcement earlier in the year to allow the district (and families) to better plan.

Timelines and rules related to Schools of Choice are available from the Michigan Department of Education, at michigan.gov/mde (type “schools of choice” into the search bar) or call 517-373-3324. Public School Academies (Charter Schools)

A Public School Academy (also known as a charter school) is a state-supported public school operating under a charter contract issued by a public authorizing body. Charter schools may include grades K–12 or any combination of those grades. They may not charge tuition nor screen out students based on race, religion, gender, or test scores. If more students apply than the school can accept, the school must hold a lottery to decide which students to accept.

Like teachers in traditional public schools, charter teachers must be certified and “highly qualified.” Charter school students participate in state standardized tests such as the Michigan Education Assessment Program (MEAP). Charter schools cannot be religiously affiliated.

Michigan recently raised the cap on the number of charter schools allowed to operate in Michigan, so expect to see new charters opening in the coming years. Look for a “Charter School FAQ” at michigan.gov/mde or visit charterschools.org/for-parents (517-374-9167). Cyber Schools

Michigan students have increasing options when it comes to online learning. Two large programs offer “blended” learning options in which students enroll in one or more online courses while still working with teachers in their home districts. Michigan Virtual University (MVU) operates the oldest and largest of these programs, with students enrolled in more than 15,000 courses. GenNET, a consortium operated by the Genesee Intermediate School District, has over 500 participating districts.

Public Act 205 of 2009 allowed the formation of full-time online schools for the first time in fall 2010. Consequently, two statewide virtual charter schools—K12 Inc. and Connections Academy—accepted more than 4,000 students from across Michigan in 2011-12. Some local districts and ISDs also offer online programs. For example, in rural Eaton County, southwest of Lansing, the ISD operates the Relevant Academy, a dropout recovery program for students ages 16-19. Parents can check to see what’s available in their area. Homeschooling

Michigan parents have the right to homeschool their children, and the numbers of families exercising that right increase every year. Plus, a growing number of homeschool networks support parents in their efforts. The actual number of Michigan homeschooling families is unknown, since homeschools are not required to register with the state unless the student has special needs and is requesting special education services from the local public school or intermediate school district.

You can learn more at michigan.gov/documents/home_schools_122555_7.pdf. Still more choice to come?

Parents face a dizzying array of choices, to be sure—one that will not shrink any time soon. Gov. Snyder, in his 2011 “Special Message on Education Reform” proposed a new “Any Time, Any Place, Any Way, Any Pace” public school learning model he believes would help expand dual enrollment, blended learning, online education and early college attendance.

“Education opportunities should be available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” Snyder said in the address.

Still, the vast majority of Michigan’s 1.5 million school children attend their local neighborhood schools, which also offer families more choices within each district. Educators are learning that one size does not fit all when it comes to teaching and learning.

-Linda Wacyk is a regular Country Lines freelance writer, educator, grandmother and content empty-nester.